Fill’er up with WNAX gas

Fill'er up with WNAX gas by Bob Karolevitz Now that the prices at the pump are soaring, I guess it's appropriate to discuss WNAX Fair Price Gasoline of the 1930s which – it's sad to say – only a few old-timers remember.

That's when Deloss Butler Gurney of the pioneer radio station in Yankton got riled up by the high costs of petroleum products � and he resolved to do something about it.

The result was 578 gas stations scattered throughout the five-state area, selling gas for as little as 17 cents a gallon.

How did he do it?

He used the air waves and a magazine called Common Sense to take on "big oil." And he organized producers � and unhappy customers � to rally around his attempt to undo what he considered a national travesty.

Before long the familiar green-and-white pumps showed up throughout the Dakotas and adjoining states. Hard-put farmers brought cans and barrels to the stations to fill them with fuel for their idle equipment.

Private automobiles � including gas-guzzling Durands, Auburns, Pierce-Arrows and Chandlers � lined up at the pumps to fill up with WNAX gas. He even gave five gallons of the stuff to men who bought a suit for $15 � with a vest, an extra pair of pants, a shirt and tie, socks, a handkerchief and a fine pair of shoes thrown in. All this for making the trip to Gurney's.

D.B. � as the entrepreneur was known � was also ahead of his time with the introduction of "alky gas," the forerunner of today's ethanol. Apparently he was invited by Henry Ford to talk about alternative fuels using grain to produce alcohol. The upshot was the purchase of a closed-down brewery in Atchison, KS, and not long afterwards D.B.'s company began marketing a blend in his WNAX gas.

To prove his point, he used an alcohol mixture in his own car. Air pollution wasn't a factor to be considered then, but he would have been one of the first environmentalists if it had been.

Annual conventions brought hundreds of Fair Price dealers and their wives to Yankton where they were entertained by the Rosebud Kids, Gurney's Hawaiians and the Sod Busters. D.B. always served as toastmaster for the festive banquet which was a highlight of the two-day affair.

Chan Gurney, D.B.'s son who later became a U.S. Senator, got in on the act, too, when he moved to Sioux Falls to operate a station and bulk plant � selling WNAX gas, of course.

In time the Fair Price outlets added tires, batteries and oil to their gasoline line. With the radio station promoting them extensively, they enjoyed great but short-lived success. And then the bubble burst!

Pressure from the major oil companies, the depletion of surplus crops to make alcohol, the sale of Radio Station WNAX and the eventual advent of World War II were among the factors which brought an end to the Gurney enterprise. D.B.'s anti-New Deal stance which put him out of favor with President Franklin Roosevelt's administration also helped.

Although it covered most of the Depression Era and then faded into history, WNAX Fair Price Gasoline was an important part of South Dakota's heritage, and its story deserves retelling some seven decades later.

D.B., who parlayed peonies, pancakes and seed potatoes into a commercial dynasty, was one of the state's remarkable individuals, and his "alky gas" gave notice of things to come.

© 2004 Robert F. Karolevitz

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